A Nation at Face Value

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from former FBI director James Comey, “Perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we’ve come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we are. We simply must see the people we serve.”

This quote came at the end of a longer segment of a speech from Director Comey that Booker included in United. In the Segment, Comey discussed the difficulties of policing and enforcing laws with equity when we as humans must deal with implicit biases. Comey specifically looked at racial dynamics within policing and implicit biases and in the quote above is meant to encourage our nation’s law enforcement to become more self-aware in its role.

Comey suggests that our nation’s values of equality and liberty exist in many ways as just a facade. Rather than truly showing that equality and liberty are important in justice, we simply say they are and act as if that is enough. We have come up with a great slogan and we say that we aspire to live in a nation that is directed by equality and liberty, but the way we treat each other and react to those who are different from us shows that these words simply exist on a banner to make us feel good about ourselves. Our belief that all men are created equal does not materialize in our actions and policies.

If we stop and reflect on what a society would look like if justice was truly equitable, we would recognize that many aspects of our actual society and criminal justice system would not fit into our ideal vision. However, instead of truly reflecting and looking deeply into who we are and how we perceive other racial groups, we look around and assume that since there is relatively little explicit racism in our country (no one demonstrating in white sheets) that racism no longer exists as a barrier to minority populations.

Comey’s speech looked at this tendency to view our country as post racial and looked at our implicit biases that negatively shape our reactions and interactions with black people and hispanics. He was honest about the problem admitting that law enforcement must understand when instincts are influenced by tribal nature which pushes them to look at outsiders in a negative light. His speech put the responsibility for implicit racism on the law enforcement officers and on society, rather than placing responsibility for implicit racism on the individual who is facing discrimination.
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How We Argue – Talking Past Each Other

Senator Cory Booker discusses the state of national debate in politics in his book United and I think accurately describes an unfortunate reality of today’s political discourse. The arguments that we make today often don’t seem to be in alignment. Each side is arguing in a way that does not seem to actually address the point being made by the other side, and does not seem to be operating with the same set of facts, values, or baseline understandings. Booker writes,

“We often end up in national conversations that are akin to arguing about what  the temperature is in a room without looking at the thermostat. What we need is a collective call to the common good based upon indisputable facts and the broader aspirational ideals to which we all ascribe.”

Booker’s point is well intentioned and falls in a recent theme among books that I am currently reading and podcasts that I listen to regarding language, reason, argument, and understanding. Booker is absolutely correct that we are arguing without a baseline and without a common set of facts, but the challenge is that his final point rests on political decision making, and even for an individual, deciding what aspirational ideals should be ascribed to is a struggle.

Author Colin Wright’s new book, Becoming Who We Need to Be, looks at one of the problems with arguments today and how we end up talking past each other. We fail to develop a shared understanding of the world and issue at hand because we use language differently depending on our viewpoints. We apply labels (acronyms, descriptions, names) to elements of an issue or argument, and if those labels are not well defined or shared, we end up at a point where our argument is in some way unintelligible to someone who sees things differently.

I have also recently listened to a couple of podcasts on Julia Galef’s show, Rationally Speaking, where the ideas of self-interest, rationality, and decision making have been challenged and examined from very nuanced perspectives. It turns out that we are not so good at determining what is in our own best interest, and much worse at understanding how other people determine what is in their best interest.

Julia Galef was also interviewed herself on a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show, and in the podcast Ezra and Julia discuss the problems that arise in our arguments. We are not open to the other side, and often shut out ideas that seem to be oppositional to ourselves or come from people we find disagreeable. This means that before we even begin an argument or debate, we are judging how aligned we are with the other person, and determining how much we should agree with them on any issue before we have even begun talking or listening.

I think Booker is correct that we are arguing without understanding what we are arguing about or what the baseline is, but trouble with how we use language, how we determine what is politically best for us or others, and how we rationalize what we and others believe make it politically challenging to ever decide what we should all ascribe to and how we could reach that goal. One solution would be an increased validity in political and knowledge institutions. A greater sense of support and acceptance of reports from academic institutions and politically neutral government agencies can help us be more aligned in our debates and discussions. This would require serious effort and commitment on the part of the agency or academic report to be seen as non-partisan, and it would also require the public to accept reports and findings that did not align with political ideals.

Communities of Fear

Our nation today faces challenges of concentrated poverty and dangerous neighborhoods that lead to stress, fear, and trauma for the families and children living within them. Senator Cory Booker looks at what life is like for people in these neighborhoods and how it impacts our nation’s well being in his book United. Booker served as mayor of Newark, New Jersey and shares a story about a concerned mother whose child was dealing with trauma and symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a gun fight in an impoverished neighborhood in Newark. Focusing on the dangers that these neighborhoods produce and the mental trauma facing those living in such neighborhoods, Booker writes,

“When fear becomes the norm, it stalks your life relentlessly, lurking and casting shadows over your daily routine. Fear changes you. Fear changes us. My parents worried about me, but they never had to deal with an ever present fear that violence could erupt at any moment and consume their child in an instant, affecting him or her in ways that no hug or loving assurance could heal.”

The fear that Booker describes is a result of concentrated poverty and unsafe neighborhoods. Our society has decided that the best way to organize people’s living spaces is to segregate individuals and families based on income. Honest concerns for property values and natural desires to be surrounded by similar people and nice things has pushed societies to split regions and housing based on income, creating wealthy neighborhoods and neighborhoods of intense poverty. The fear that Booker describes in the quote above is the result of living in a situation where poor people are pushed together and in some ways ignored. Regarding the trauma present in these neighborhoods Booker writes, “This is not normal, but somehow we behave as if it is. We accept it. If anything we think it is ‘their’ problem.”

I don’t have a perfect solution to end housing problems and neighborhood violence, but I think that Booker demonstrates that concentrated poverty and the problems it creates are unfairly faced by those with the fewest resources to overcome such challenges. Society often turns a blind eye to the ghettos we have designed to house our poor, and fail to see the choices society has made in establishing neighborhoods in the way we have. The fear and trauma that so many face makes it nearly impossible to overcome the obstacles present in such communities.

Our Careers

A real challenge for many people today is understanding how we should think about our careers and the jobs we do. Growing up we are told to go to college and to get a great job where we don’t have to work too hard. Along the way we watch people take jobs that sound important and impressive and often without realizing it, we develop an understanding that having a  job is less about earning a living and more about standing out and finding something that fulfills us and gives us meaning.

 

This pressure and drive toward a career that is about more than just earning money feels like a relatively new phenomenon to me, though I’m sure people have been confronting these challenges for ages. When I look around I see that young people today must balance the need to make money with pressure to become important and reflect their status through their career. At the same time, their position must appear to be desirable, interesting, and lucrative.

 

What is often lost, is that the career is not the sole factor in determining whether an individual is successful, and it is not the only factor in determining whether someone is happy. Senator Cory Booker’s mother gave him this advice on this the day he officially became a senator. In his book United, Booker shares what his mother told him on the day that he stepped into one of the most impressive and easily ego inflating careers in the country, “Don’t get carried away with all of this … Remember,  the title doesn’t make the man, the man must make the title.”

 

We must remember that having a fancy title and having a job that sounds important will not lead to happiness and will not lead to us becoming the person we always imagined ourselves to be. Stepping back and recognizing that our drive for fancy job titles is simply a desire to build our own ego and become carried away in thoughts of our own greatness will help us step back from the career drive that blindly shapes the direction of so many people’s lives. In a recent episode of the Rationaly Speaking Podcast, Julai Galef’s guest Robert Wright shared a similar thought. Speaking about leftover parts of human nature in our brain, Wright stated,

 

“The other thing I’d say is that some of the things are valuable to people. Like, they facilitate social climbing … But that presupposes that social climbing is itself good for you. That’s an argument you could have. …

 

And so it might encourage questioning, “Well, why the relentless pursuit of social status?” I mean I understand why I have it. Status got genes into the next generation, so I have the thirst for that … That doesn’t mean, if upon examination I decide that the quest for status, especially again, in a modern environment that may be different from the one we are designed for, if I decide that that’s actually not making me happy anyway, then some of these illusions are actually not even useful.”

 

Wright directly addresses social climbing as a status marker that developed when we lived in tribes as a way to help us pass our genes along. We live with a drive for status and today status is represented in our careers and rewarded financially. Wright’s argument, and the sentiment that Booker’s mother shared, is that simply having a title does not lead to argument or reflect that we are somehow better than others, it just raises our status which can be damaging if our ego becomes too inflated.

 

We may not be able to escape the reality that people today judge each other based on the work they do, but we can always remember that what is important is how we do that work, how we live our lives outside of work, and whether we are a well rounded and balanced individual in our time within and outside of our career. Simply having a title or being lucky enough to have a good job does not define who we are as a person or give our lives meaning. It is our actions and our intent that matter.

Quarrels

Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with a quote from John F. Kennedy, “So let us not be petty when our cause is great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake”

 

The first couple of paragraphs of the chapter that starts with this quote from Kennedy introduce Booker’s dad and his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Booker writes about the incredible courage shown by his dad in the face of such a devastating disease, and what it meant for Booker to watch his dad fight through Parkinson’s while Booker was campaigning for the Senate.

 

It is easy to be caught up in the day to day relationships we have with the people around us and to focus on our interactions with people at the office, our neighbors, and our family without thinking about a bigger picture and the greater context we find ourselves within. When our perspective is narrowed, it can be easy to allow simple quarrels to shape our behaviors and actions and it can be easy for us to be tossed around by our emotional reactions to small things. Our daily interactions with others begin to take on more meaning than they warrant as we imbed meaning to meaningless actions and behaviors.

 

The quick story about Booker’s father and his fight against Parkinson’s brings Kennedy’s quote to life. It shows us that our lives are worth more than the quarrels we allow to drive our behaviors and out reactions to people and the world. When we loose sight of how important our lives are (not in the sense of galactic or history shaping importance) we allow the unimportant and petty to drive our experiences. When we step back and understand that this life is all we have, that our perceptions and experiences are all we have, we can become more self-aware of our behaviors and the way we use the precious time we have in our life.

 

Each action on its own may not shape the direction of our nation’s future, but our actions do shape the direction of our lives. Allowing petty disagreements and jealousies to shape the way we go about our lives prevents us from seeing that we have great opportunity simply by being alive in this century. As Colin Wright wrote in his book Act Accordingly, “You have exactly one life in which to do everything you will ever do. Act accordingly.”

On Tolerance

In the book United, Senator Cory Booker shares his views of the American political culture and society, and how he has come to understand the decisions, thoughts, and views of our nation. Throughout the book he shares stories and lessons that he learned from other people growing up in New Jersey and serving as a city council member and as mayor. Frank Hutchins was one of the people who shaped Booker’s thoughts and understandings, and Frank’s views, along with Booker’s Christian views, influenced the way in which Booker thinks about tolerance and unity in our society.

Booker writes, “I came to see Frank as someone who was fighting against the common notion of tolerance. For most of us, tolerance demands only that we acknowledge another’s right to exist. Tolerance says that if they cease to be, if  they succumb to injustice or disappear from the face of the earth, then we are no worse off.” In this view of tolerance, Booker references the way in which we grudgingly accept people who are different from us, who we somehow don’t like, and who we think are morally or socially wrong for being who they are. This view of tolerance says that we will accept people when legally obliged to do so, and we will outwardly smile at them while inside of us a storm of negativity brews. This view of tolerance may allow the other to be safe from violence within our society, but it will never accept the other and will never bring the other into our world to share a full life. Rather, the other will always be marginalized and pushed to the edges of society and hopefully to a place where we have minimal interactions with them.

Booker counters this idea of tolerance in his book with the idea of love. He is deeply Christian and his views of love are shaped from his spiritual beliefs. His focus on love is very much in the fashion of Lincoln, to whom the quote is often attributed, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them a friend?” Booker writes, “Tolerance is becoming accustomed to injustice; love is becoming disturbed and activated by another’s adverse condition. Tolerance crosses the street; love confronts. Tolerance builds fences; love opens doors. Tolerance breeds indifference; love demands engagement. Tolerance couldn’t care less; love always cares more.” For Booker, what is important is our shared humanity and being able to come together as an accepting community to share purpose and value. When we begin to fracture society by limiting participation and full inclusion and criticize differences or shortcomings, we drive isolation and prevent people from growing and improving not just their life, but society as a whole. Approaching people with more love, empathy, and compassion helps us build a community while simply tolerating those who are different pushes people away and denounces those who are different.

Hidden Backstories

Last summer I read extensively on race relations in the United States, and Senator Cory Booker’s United was my starting place. One of the things I was struck by in his book is how recently many actively discriminatory policies were in place, and the lingering effect of those policies. I had never experienced or seen outright discrimination or racism in my own life (I am a white male in my 20s, so it is questionable whether I would have recognized it if I had seen it), and I did not think that discrimination still acted as a major force in people’s lives today. Booker’s book along with several others, helped me understand how racial discrimination has persisted in various forms and helped me see how discriminatory practices from the past still impact the lives of people today.

Regarding housing policy in the United States, Booker demonstrates the lingering effect of racial discrimination with the following, “As Kenneth Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, ‘The result, if not the intent, of the public housing program of the United States was to segregate the races, to concentrate the disadvantaged in inner cities, and to reinforce the image of suburbia as a place of refuge [from] the problems of race, crime, and poverty.’”

In the United States today many large cities are gentrifying, meaning that more wealthy individuals are moving back into the cities, increasing diversity, bringing economic and cultural revival to inner cities, and also driving up the housing costs and cost of living in the cities. This is an opposite trend from what Booker explains by quoting Kenneth Jackson, and if we are not careful it could have the same effect of marginalizing poor groups of society which often tend to be majority racial minorities. In the not too distant past housing policies greatly advantaged white people and disadvantaged black and minority people. White families were shown different neighborhoods when looking for homes and received different treatment in suburban neighborhoods. The result was that it was difficult for black people and minorities in our country to move into newer homes in suburban areas, limiting their ability to build wealth through home investments, creating areas of concentrated poverty, and potentially restricting minority populations to environmentally more hazardous areas. Some of these policies were explicit and some implicit, but many still impact the lives of people today.

Restrictive housing in New Orleans as the city grew and developed in the 1900s created a segregated city with white home owners living and moving into neighborhoods on one side of the city which was higher in terms of altitude altitude, while black people and minorities were restricted to another side of the city with lower lying neighborhoods. When Hurricane Katrina decimated the city, the force of the storm tore up both the higher and lower elevation areas of the city, but the flooding was more pronounced and longer lasting in the lower elevation levels where black people had lived for generations. White people whose families for years had lived in the higher elevation part of the city still needed to rebuild, but with less flooding and quicker drainage, did not have to start over from square one. The housing policies of the not too distant past haunted the city in the early 2000s.

For our society today we must recognize these lingering effects and remember the harm that segregation caused whether intentional or not as we decide how we want to live today. I do not have a clear answer to the problems, but we should recognize when our housing policy as a society and living decisions as individuals lead to greater inequity among racial or economic groups. The gentrification today is not based on overt racial discrimination like the housing policies of the 1950s an 60s, but the economic segregation driving the engine of gentrification could still have the same effects of segregating minority populations into substandard housing and disadvantaging them with greater commute times, and restricted access to services and opportunities.